September 25, 2013

Sovev Turki Without A Skinned Knee

I finally had a chance to bike down the Ayalon Expressway. 

Recently I blogged about Yom Ofanaim, the secular Israeli version 
of Yom Kippur, when riders take advantage 
of the traffic-free roads. Today was the fourth annual Sovev Turki, the Tour de Tel Aviv.

The ride took us along the sparkling seaside and into the outskirts of Old Jaffa, then we hit the wide open lanes of the Ayalon Expressway. Riders had a choice of three routes with a few stipulations. Of course, these were all broken. For example, the 43-km. ride was for ages 16 and above,  24 kilometers was for people aged 12 and older and the 9-kilometer route was for anyone and everyone.  

We chose the 43-km route and took our 14-year-old son with us. I was so nervous about breaking this rule, I asked him to disguise himself by wearing dark glasses. Indignant, he said no. And of course, when I got to the starting line, I was with a multitude of small children raring to bike the longest route. I also saw people without helmets (against race rules) and people without the event bib pinned to them (against race rules).

It was a free-for-all bicycle balagan where all cycling rules of conduct were broken. There were so many participants, the event was filled with wipe outs as eager cyclists tried to weave in and out, cutting riders off. The kids swerved, people rode while talking on their cell phones, while others pedaled with music blaring in their headphones. 

I saw shaky riders shooting video, cyclists who just stopped in the middle of the road and pedestrians who took their lives (and ours) in their hands and dashed into the melee. I clenched my handle bars, grit my teeth and had my fingers on the brakes at all times, simply hoping I could stay in one piece.

It was called a bike tour, but online skaters came out, joggers ran along the highway, while an occasional rider rode in the opposing direction. There were unicycles, electric bikes, tandem bikes and triple tandem bikes. I was noting that at least there were no sheep as I had seen in the Jerusalem Marathon, but stand zoologically corrected as my son spotted a few donkeys meandering through central Tel Aviv.  I pedaled and I dreamed of a future day when cities would be blissfully car free, silent and clean, filled with the gentle whirring of wheels and tinkling ca-ching of bicycle bells.

Security was tight as one would imagine. Motorcycles whipped by with police clutching M16s.  Security stood atop every bridge and along each corner. They may have been more concerned about Israeli cars whipping into the sealed-off bike lanes than terror threats, but who knows.

It has been a hard week here as we lost two young soldiers in the past few days. It weighs heavy on us all. Last week, after the brutal death of young 20-year-old Tomer, I saw the mayor Bat Yam comment on TV , saying “Hachayim mamshichim.” Life continues. At the moment, I felt this was a bit insensitive, but I wonder whether life’s fragility and the insecure ‘matzav’ (situation) we face every day simply compels Israelis to get out, pedal, live and celebrate life. 

At one point on the course, all three rides met and I found myself pedaling alongside chubby three year olds who could barely walk, let alone ride in a straight line. And suddenly, there was a turn. A cautious car lane changer, I am a super wary bike lane changer, so I decided to take the path of least resistance and go straight where I missed the finish line, veering smack into what appeared to be a bicycle bumper obstacle course of preschoolers. 

My husband discovered my error before I had, locating my coordinates on his iphone. Nerves shattered, and tired from waking up at 5 am that morning, then biking more than my 43-km share, I was more than happy to leave the course and cut back through the city streets, relieved to finally get off my bike without a skinned knee.  

September 18, 2013

Soulful Silence

Last Saturday, the country celebrated Yom Kippur. I say ‘country’ because the entire nation feels the power of Yom Kippur. By law, TV and radio broadcasts are forbidden, the airports are closed, public transportation comes to a halt, and all businesses are shut down tight. No one is allowed to drive on any road except for emergency vehicles that sail past in silence, their lights flashing. On Yom Kippur, the country rests and contemplates.

The only other place where I have seen all-encompassing rest is Bali. I was once there during the Hindu national holiday of Nyepi. This is a day of silence and a time when the ‘island sleeps.’ People cook in advance and on Nyepi, no one leaves their homes or cooks–even tourists must stay in their hotels. There is also no broadcasting for 24 hours. The island and the Balinese rest in silence for a full day.

I am not comparing Judaism to Hinduism, but on these holidays, both religions recognize the intrinsic need to stop being engaged in the physical and to contemplate the spiritual. 

This is a rare phenomenon in a frantic world of rings and beeps, honks and screeches, sirens and roaring jet engines. We are deafened by noise. It distracts our thoughts and blocks our souls. The silence of a sky freed from air traffic and of desolate highways awakens us and must also affect the natural world.

On Yom Kippur, aside from resting, most Israelis fast. An interesting survey made by BINA shows that 73% of the Israeli population fasts. And considering that 43% of Israelis are secular, this is remarkable.  When asked why, secular Israelis respond that they fast for reasons of solidarity for the Jewish people, for culture and for tradition.

The BINA survey also shows that the younger population is more likely to fast. Some 84% of Israeli aged 18 to 24 fasted, while 66% of Israelis over 36 years old fasted. Another interesting comment I read in conjunction with these results is that when secular Israelis are not coerced into religion, they are more likely to take it upon themselves.

I have been in Israel for eight Yom Kippur fasts and every year, I feel a strengthening in observance of this holiday. After Kol Nidre, hundreds of shuls in Ra’anana empty out and people stroll along the middle of the car-free main street. Many of these people are not religious and some come out with their bicycles for their annual “Yom Ofanayim” (bicycle day). Yet each year, I see fewer and fewer bicycles whipping past me.

Last Friday night, I saw a group of secular Israelis talking in the middle of the road when suddenly a car pulled onto the main street. It was not an emergency vehicle and no one knew why a car would possible be driving on this sacred night. The group stopped their conversation and stared coldly at the car as if it were trespassing the most severe law. It was a special moment of Jewish unity. 

The silence of this day is profound and helps uplift us. And when the sun sets, and the gates of the Neilah prayer close, people place their keys in the ignition, rev the accelerator and slide on their iPhones. The cacophony begins--until next year.

September 11, 2013

Our soldiers, our sons

I was so busy preparing for Rosh Hashanah, I had little time to contemplate. Overwhelmed by the upcoming three-day chag; preparing menus, cooking meals, hosting overnight visitors, and making last-minute dashes to the grocery store, I had no time to think.

I made a long checklist and detailed menus, crossing off each item as it was done. Yet when I had completed everything, I felt empty. Lighting the candles and welcoming Rosh Hashanah, I stood and watched the flames flicker across the room. A new year arrived. And I felt unsettled.

The tablecloth was white, the flowers lavender. Exotic dishes representing the symbolic Rosh Hashanah foods filled the table: purple beets, plump dates, bright orange gourds, sweet saffron beans and rice. It all looked so festive and promising.

Our guests arrived and we all sat down to our meal. I looked around and felt the same emptiness. And then it hit me. My eldest son was not with us.

Weeks ago, when he first told me his army schedule, I knew he was not going to be here. But I did not know how I was going to feel and just how much he would be missed.

That evening, Jewish families around the world walked to synagogue together, and over the next few days, they gathered for the special Yom Tov meals, and relaxed in the afternoons. Yet here in Israel, where so many of our sons and daughters are doing army service, there is a void. Knowing my son was standing with a gun guarding a settlement while we feasted was especially hard for me.

These are the times when the army sacrifice is most keenly felt. Do these soldiers want to be standing on hilltop outposts? Or guarding hostile borders? They would all rather be home with family and friends, yet they realize they have the most important job of all.

Going into this holiday, we all knew the political situation here was tenuous and, as Observant Jews, none of us would have access to news or phone calls for three days. But because of these soldiers, my son included, the rest of the country was able to go to shul peacefully, pray, walk about leisurely, eat lavish meals with friends and reconnect spiritually.

It is in our soldiers’ merit that we can focus on this connection. When I davened in shul, I closed my eyes tightly and begged for peace. I want my son at my side. We all want our children home.

The IDF is an extraordinary organization comprised of soldiers from diverse backgrounds, each with unique stories. The Israeli Army recently put out this heart-warming video wishing us all a ShanaTova.

During the holidays, we should pause and take the time to think of the soldiers who ensure we can celebrate in peace.

September 2, 2013

Middle Eastern Stocking Stuffers

Grab a cuppa coffee and assess your year's deeds.
"Elul, Elul, just wake up!' A poster with a strong steaming coffee reminds Israeli passersby that it is almost Rosh Hashanah. The Jewish month of Elul is the time to look at our past deeds, refocus, make a plan to become better people--and buy Elite coffee.

On the streets, in the schools and in every Jewish home, Israeli life is infused with the New Year. Observant people are going to evening Torah classes and  gathering at huge midnight selichot prayer services. And with shofars piercing the air each dawn, we all know Rosh Hashanah is here.

One can't help but notice the giant billboards luring customers who are driving on the Ayalon Freeway. "Buy one, get two free." And if for some reason you don't notice this sign, a second sign soon follows offering "Two perfumes for 299 NIS."

Perfume promotion.

The Ra'anana country club mails
members New Year greetings.
Giant perfume posters? This is no surprise. Most Israelis buy perfume just before Rosh Hashanah as well as new clothing, gifts and flowers. These days, our big holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Passover, call out to consumers’ pockets promoting middle eastern versions of stocking stuffers.

Crimson pomegranates and jars of golden honey take front row in the supermarkets. Fliers fall from newspapers and are stuffed into mail boxes promising discounts on dining rooms tables, saucepans, linens plus super sales on local wines, hot water urns and Sukkah beds.

Busy filling their shopping carts, most Israelis are too preoccupied to follow the international news with great detail. Yes, we know the situation with our neighbors is heating up. And as the world is deciding how to best deal with Syrian war crimes, we cannot help but find ourselves simmering in the middle of a ‘stew pot.’ This country has seen a lot in its 65 years and the many unfortunate wars and terror attacks have created a strong, determined nation.

Local bakery Erev Rosh Hashana.
Despite the bleak, doomsday international headlines, here in Israel we rush about wishing each other Shana Tova. Be it the shoe salesman boxing a shiny new pair of sandals, the gardener sweeping up leaves or a tech person on the phone, every conversation ends with hopeful, promising words. This is a sure indication that people here are positive.

We are strong on the outside, yet on the inside, this place is as sweet as honey—or as fragrant as Carven, le parfum.

May this be a sweet, peaceful and meaningful year for all.